Solid Gold: Jersey Boys

The melody is instantly recognizable: "Oh, What a Night." But something's weird. The arrangement is off. It doesn't sound like beloved Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. Oh sweet lord, is that French? And it's being rapped — to a disco beat! The audience reacts with unease. Suddenly, the back scrim rises behind the erector set grid, and we see those iconic silhouettes. The disco scene scatters, and as if in a collective sigh, the audience spontaneously applauds. The group struts forward and begins one of the signature doo-wop hits of the '50s, "Silhouettes." All is right with the world — the Boys are here.

This knockout of an opening — in its way as refreshing and novel as Aunt Eller churning butter with Curly singing offstage in Oklahoma — is only one of the countless pleasures in Jersey Boys, the most enjoyable musical in years, brought here by Broadway Across America. What's surprising is that Jersey Boys, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2006, is a jukebox musical, that ersatz form of Broadway entertainment that purloins previous hits for the score and uncomfortably shoehorns a clunky plot around them. Think Mamma Mia!, Boy From Oz, Lennon and Good Vibrations.

Boys has a raft of solid gold hits to glean — the whole Four Seasons catalog. This treasure trove of nostalgia is one reason the show strikes such a resonant chord with the audience. Just hearing "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry" or "Walk Like a Man" will zip baby boomers magically back to their youth.

Instead of plopping songs into a plot that was never intended to hold them, book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice take the path of least resistance. Since they're using Four Seasons songs, they'll tell the group's story. What could be simpler? With some poetic license, the songs fit in the order they were recorded and overlap with the story of the Four Seasons. This interweaving of song and plot is most dexterous, and when it works best it reveals character as it propels the narrative, as when Frankie's marriage breaks up and he sings "My Eyes Adored You." This is sophisticated musical storytelling. If future musical producers want a quick lesson in structure, Jersey Boys is the one to learn from; it's the top.

Now, backstagers don't exactly set Broadway on fire, and we're well aware of the clichés that befall the low-class kid struggling "to get out." We can tick them off in our sleep: self-doubt, infidelity, jealousy, money problems, unscrupulous managers, unbridled ego. All these obstacles fall into place here, and Jersey Boys would be more of the same if not for the show's ace in the hole: the Boys themselves. These petty hoods are so lovable, we root for their success right from the start. Standing on a street corner in rustbelt New Jersey, they love to sing, harmonizing like roughhouse angels, and they have a chance to make it if they can stay out of jail long enough to form a group.

When Tommie, the most prickly of the group, with unsavory mob ties, brings in young Frankie, with his amazing vocal range, to join him and his modest musician friend Nick in their new band, the course is set. Later, songwriter Bob Gaudio, who goes on to pen their biggest hits, is introduced to the trio, and the new quartet coalesces. Appropriating the name of a bowling alley where they're performing, the newly christened Four Seasons find their unique sound.

All four guys narrate the story, adding pieces to each other's puzzle. It's essentially Frankie's story, but everybody gets an equal say, and this cohesion among the guys is an unwritten theme of the show, as are loyalty and keeping your word to your buddies. These old-fashioned values go a long way in making Jersey Boys so appealing. In spite of all the infighting and obstacles on the march to the top of the charts, this is a very "up" show — another of its many charms.

Director Des McAnuff, who's led the show since its inception at California's La Jolla Playhouse, keeps it smartly moving with a Top 40 sleekness. Nothing is allowed to slow down, least of all the spirited, pre-boy band moves stylishly choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. To keep strong focus on the story and the songs, the set's minimal: just that looming grid work, some chain-link fencing, a background factory silhouette evoking a worn-out Jersey, and a neon bar sign, or the like. What seems out of place are the pop-art cartoon panels that drop in to comment on the action. They're much too smug and ironic for a show with this much sincerity.

The four Boys are outstanding: Erik Bates is all macho bluster as wayward Tommie; Steve Gouveia displays pent-up fury as unassuming Nick; Andrew Rannells brings a showstopping voice to boy genius composer Bob Gaudio; and Christopher Kale Jones goes from innocent boy to grown-up survivor — with splendid falsetto pipes — as Frankie Valli.

When these four blend their voices in any of the Four Seasons classics — "Big Man in Town," "Dawn," "Working My Way Back to You" — musical theater just doesn't get any better.

Jersey Boys

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover